Ailsa Bay is a Lowland distillery that is located in the Scottish coastal town of Girvan in Ayrshire. It is one of Scotland's largest single malt distilleries but relatively unknown. This is due to the fact that most spirit produced there is allocated for owner William Grant & Sons' blending purposes. It is also a relatively new distillery with few single malt releases to report. However, those that have been released provide a serious twist to the classic Lowland style.
Ailsa Bay single malt releases are in the sweet, peaty and smoky style. They are very different from the archetypal Lowland style of light, fresh, grassy and floral.
Most of Ailsa Bay spirit is matured in American oak casks sourced from the bourbon whiskey industry, and releases to date reflect this. This bourbon cask matured whisky shows notes of vanilla, honey and white chocolate. These characteristics accentuate the peat smoke sweetness, which has a soft ashy quality with a hint of white pepper.
Ailsa Bay is a large distillery with most spirit produced going towards the owner's Grant's and Monkey Shoulder brands. It has an annual production capacity of 12 million litres. Unusually, they produce five types of single malt. The most common is light, delicate and sweet. There is also a heavy and sulphuric style, plus three peated variants - these have differing peat levels with the heaviest being 50PPM (Phenol Parts per Million). Phenol is the compound released from peat when it is burned, which then gets locked into the barley during the drying process.
The large production capacity requires a large set of equipment. There are two 12 tonne mash tuns on site and between them they operate 50 mashes per week. There are 24 stainless steel washbacks, each holding 50,000 litres. They run two fermentation times - 60 hours for the heavier styles and 72 hours for lighter. Ailsa Bay has 16 stills that work together as eight pairs. These are replicas of those found at its sister distillery of Balvenie in Speyside.
Ailsa Bay undergoes a unique micro-maturation process. This sees the new make spirit first matured in small barrels sourced from the Hudson distillery in America. The spirit remains in these barrels, which range from 25 to 100 litres in size, for six to nine months. The process enables initial rapid interaction between oak and spirit. It is then transferred to casks of a more traditional size (200 or 225 litres) for the remainder of its maturation.
Ailsa Bay was founded in 2007 by William Grant & Sons in Girvan, Ayrshire. It was designed to take pressure off their other single malt distilleries - Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie - for the supply of spirit towards their popular Grant's blended Scotch and Monkey Shoulder blended malt ranges. The new distillery was located on the same site as the Girvan single grain and Hendrick's gin distilleries. The facility is housed within a mix of new structures and former buildings of the old Ladyburn distillery.
Ailsa Bay is named after Ailsa Craig, the dome-shaped granite island that sits in the Firth of Clyde and that can be seen from the distillery. This island is known for mining some of the world's hardest granite stone.
Alisa Bay's first single malt under its own name was released in 2016 and shook up the Lowland category by being sweet and peaty. Further batches have been released since, alongside the Ailsa Bay Sweet Smoke that was bottled in 2018.